Towards the end of our stay, we decided that it was time to invade the museums. I inevitably made my way straight to the Natural History Museum and once in the museum I went straight to the rooms devoted to prehistory, in fact a very small part of the museum as a whole.
The prehistory rooms are still in what appears to be their original form. They are set in magnificent large late baroque rooms, with large glass showcases, and the layout gives a wonderful late 19th century feel. I always admire these old-fashioned displays which aimed to show the objects ‘raw’, and in some ways these rooms fulfil my ideal. But they are just a little bit too old-fashioned. It is a pity too, that like most other museums, they mae no attempt to tell the stories behind the objects, apart from a weak attempt at placing them in the ‘what did they eat?’ ethos of the 1980s. But many of the objects themselves are fascinating.
The high point of the exhibition comes in the first room, where they have their prize exhibit, a Palaeolithic figurine called the Venus of Willendorf, inevitably labelled the oldest art in the world. It has a special room all of its own, a structure that could either be called a large dog kennel or a small Temple.
Inside all is dark and then in the middle of it is a dramatically lit showcase featuring the lady herself, very small only a couple of inches high. She is difficult to photo; I took several photos of her and this is the best I could do.
But she is a typical example of beauty, Palaeolithic style. The feature of greatest beauty are those wonderful hips, displaying good childbearing capacity — she would have no trouble in popping out dozens of children for you. Then she has a well rounded bum, nice and fat, storing up fat for the hard winters when there is not enough to eat. Then look at those gorgeous breasts, with two tiny little arms folded over them. And the head? Well, the head doesn’t matter, does it is simply presented in pure abstract form. Not your ideal of beauty? Well in the modern world, we are perverted and no longer recognise the virtues of those good childbearing hips.
In the corner of the room there is an even more gorgeous example of female beauty, the wonderful mother goddess found near Pazardzhik in Bulgaria in 1870. I recognised the type at once — she is a very magnificent example of the ‘mother goddess’ figurines known from the Balkans from what is traditionally known as the Vinca or the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, though these names are no longer fashionable. The great Lithuanian archaeologist Maria Gimbutas who ended up in California made a special study of these mother goddesses, but then went rather overboard in her interpretation, saying that they symbolise a peaceful matriarchal culture of the late Neolithic which was rudely disrupted by the nasty male invaders from the steppes of Central Asia, bringing with them what she called the called the Kurgan culture, of males buried under barrow mounds. The feminists of California were all very pleased with this, and it went down a wow, but it is now generally felt to be rather over the top. Still she is rather gorgeous: click on her to enlarge, and note the miniscule breasts peeking out from her shoulders and those wonderful hips – and even a small hole that surely represents her vagina.
And here, just to make me feel at home, is a beaker, a type of pottery found in a swathe from Spain through Britain down into Central Europe. They were buried with the dead, presumably originally containing beer, but the meaning of their widespread distribution is still controversial.
And here is another shot from a similar pot with wonderful crudely incised figures. I think these may be from Sopron, in Hungary, where a number of such urns were found, dating to the Hallstatt period in the 6th century BC.
And here is a four wheeled wagon carrying a couple of ducks. There are a number of such models of four-wheeled waggons at the end of the Bronze Age or beginning of the Iron Age signifying the arrival of wheeled vehicles from eastern Europe. Presumably the ducks are models of a duck god who is quite common at his time.
And at the end I strayed out of archaeology into geology and saw the prize display of the museum, this splendid model of a dinosaur (an allosaurus). But it wasn’t a static display: the dinosaur moves around, waving its tail and waggling its long neck back and forth and opening its jaws and howling. Lots of little boys stood there admiring it, until it bent down and howled at them, at which they fled.
I took a splendid movie of this, but I have not yet found how to display it on the web.
On to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans
22nd Octber 2011